Recently, as I was scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed, I saw this picture:
It’s called “The Tree Spirit,” and it’s by an artist named Sean Andrew Murphy. It’s available as a print in his Etsy shop.
It made me think about women and trees. I’ve always loved trees, I think because they’re so solid. Trees are dependable: they may lose their leaves, but they’re still going to be there. The core of who they are will not change. When you are troubled, you could do much worse than going out and talking to a tree . . .
I’ve written several poems about women who fall in love with trees, and I think that’s because trees have qualities that we want in a partner. That solidity and dependability, the ability to keep growing, despite injuries. To grow around old hurts, to thrive despite them. A kind of perpetual renewal, yet also a permanence.
It makes sense that cultures other than our own have thought of trees as conscious, have painted or sung about men and women stepping out of trees. (When we aren’t looking, of course.) The Greeks had their dryads and hamadryads. When I was a child, I used to wonder what the man or woman of each tree would look like. I would try to imagine them, inspired I suppose by C.S. Lewis’ descriptions of the tree spirits in the Narnia books. For me, the most magical moment in the entire series is when Aslan brings the trees back to life, in Prince Caspian. The land has been asleep, under the rule of the Telmarines (who are early versions of muggles stuck in a land whose magic they disbelieve in on principle and reject out of fear). But when Aslan returns, it wakes up again — the magic is reborn. Looking at the world around me, I thought, we live in a land asleep. That must be why I can’t see the spirits of the trees and waters. That must be why magic doesn’t work. We’ve lost something, but if Aslan came . . .
Murphy says that his picture was inspired by Arthur Rackham, and sure enough Rackham has painted a woman and tree as well:
Now that I’m an adult, I keep reading news stories that reveal the strangeness of the world: elephants communicating at frequencies we don’t understand, trees creating communities underground with their roots. The world we see, the world we experience with our limited senses, is such a small part of the world that actually exists. It’s not as though we’ve lost the magic. It’s as though we willfully ignore it. We are the ones asleep — the rest of the world is still as awake as it ever was. This is where science and magic meet, and we find out that truth is more fantastical than our fantasies. Mother Nature is, after all, the greatest fantasy writer.
Before I thought of writing this blog post, I took a picture of me and posted it. I joked that I had decided to become a tree spirit.
It’s a bit of wishful thinking on my part — as though I could become a tree, become part of the natural world in a way I am not. Take on some of the qualities I admire in trees. I would like that . . .
The thing about this world is, Aslan isn’t coming. It’s up to all of us to wake up, and wake each other up.
The pictures by Murphy and Rackham both do that, because while they are literally false, they are figuratively and symbolically true. They express the deep truth of trees . . .
Graves’ White Goddess comes to mind …
I had the good fortune to live for a while in a forest. I was ten & eleven then and it
was difficult to explain how ALIVE the pines an junipers are. As I walked among them
I felt a wish to make music. Now it is easier to speak of all this, for I learned it is
mythic and in so much lore. A lovely post.
Wonderful! I particularly love “Mother Nature… is the greatest fantasy writer.”
You might also find this link interesting: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/webforum/042011/Mocko%20On%20Tree%20Marriage%20Final.pdf. Tree marriage still happens in India.